The very convincing prejudices of smart people

On the whole, if someone agrees with you then they seem intelligent, understanding and their opinion well-reasoned.

If they disagree then they  seem arrogant, ill-informed or just plain prejudiced.

We all share this tendency and it leads to narrow thinking and won’t get you very far (Though you may do well in politics).

When a challenging piece of information or a new interpretation of an event comes your way you can do one of two things.

i) You can accept it which requires changing your view of something or someone.

ii) Or you can apply  billions of grey cells to explaining how this proves your opinion is right all along OR that the new information is flawed.

Both approaches demand brain power.

As Charles D Ellis wrote:

“Faced with information that contradicts what they believe, human beings tend to respond in one of two ways. Some will assimilate the information, changing it – as oysters cover an obnoxious grain of silicon with nacre – so they can ignore the new knowledge and hold on to their former beliefs, and others will accept the validity of the new information. Instead of changing the meaning of new data to fit their old concept of reality, they adjust their perception of reality to accommodate the information and put it to use.”

The oyster approach, as Ellis describes it, seems daft. It’s a denial of reality.The advantage goes to the person who accepts the new knowledge and does something with it.

So the person who accepts the new knowledge would be the smart one. Or so it seems.

The trouble is it’s people with the intellectual firepower and creativity who are best able to convince themselves that the old, invalid position remains the right one and screw the new information.

Maintaining such conviction despite the facts requires twisting and turning reality, swapping cause and effect and other elaborate mental con-jobs.

And yet, if you’re smart enough to do all this then you’re smart enough to see the holes in the shoes of your thinking. So what’s going on?

Ellis explains: “Psychologists advise us that the more important the old concept of reality is to a person – the more important it is to his sense of self esteem and sense of self-worth the more tenaciously he will hold on to the old concept and the more insistently he will assimilate or reject new evidence that conflicts with his old and familiar concept of the world. This behaviour is particularly common among very bright people because they can so easily develop and articulate self-persuasive logic to justify the conclusions they want to keep.”

It’s why very bright people can hold some absurd prejudices and magical beliefs. Such prejudices , self-serving arguments and ego-driven thinking are hidden from each of us. And the smarter you are the better you can hide them.

What’s the solution?

Being humble is a start: Put your own ideas under the microscope in the same way that you examine those of someone else. try to see the baggage you are carrying with you.

The Cambridge psychologist Robert Thouless explained:

“If we see another man holding opinions that correspond to his wishes we suspect that these opinions are prejudices, and if we notice ourselves holding opinions that correspond to our own wishes we have equally good grounds for suspecting prejudice. If we find ourselves getting angry when some cherished belief is questioned, we may suspect that that belief is a prejudice based on irrational grounds just as we would if we observed another man unreasonably touchy about an opinion. We are not likely to understand fully the irrational sources of our opinions, but we can have some knowledge of them if we examine our own opinions as critically and un- sympathetically as we do the opinions of others.”